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How Jesus’ Apocalyptic Teachings Were Changed (even in the NT)

I have been arguing that Jesus talked about a figure he called the Son of Man, a cosmic judge of the earth who was soon to arrive from heaven to judge all people, to destroy the opponents of God (both human and non-human) and to reward his (human) followers with a utopian kingdom here on earth.  This was not a weird, unusual, or psychotic message: in basic terms it was a rather common view among Jews in Jesus day, a view that scholars have called “apocalyptic.”

The word comes from the Greek term “apocalypsis,” which means a “revealing” or an “unveiling.”  Jewish apocalypticism was widespread in Jesus’ day: it was a view held by the Pharisees, the Essenes (including the authors and users of the Dead Sea Scrolls), authors of books such as 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch, various “prophets” we know about (named and unnamed), John the Baptist, and many, many others.  These Jews believed the world was controlled for now by forces of evil, but God was soon to re-assert his authority by bringing in a day of judgment in which all that was evil would be destroyed.

It was common among these groups to think this was all going to happen very soon:  these are the end times according to both the Essenes and the pre-Christian Paul; the end is coming right away according to John the Baptist (Luke 3:9); it will happen within his own generation according to Jesus (Mark 9:1; 13:30).  Why soon?  Because the world has gotten as bad as it can get and it can’t last much longer.  God will intervene soon.  If you are suffering for siding with God: hold on!  It won’t be long!  Soon you will be vindicated and rewarded.

Jesus taught this.  His followers believed it.  The Son of Man was to arrive at any time.

What happened when he didn’t?  What happened when the end that was coming soon did not come at all?   Various things happened in different groups.  Among the followers of Jesus, his apocalyptic message of the imminent arrival of the Son of Man came to be transformed — de-apocalypticized — by the storytellers who recounted his teachings.  In our later Gospel sources, Jesus’ teaching begins to sound different.  Less apocalyptic.  Eventually it became non-apocalyptic.  Later still it became anti-apocalyptic.  One can see why.  The original predictions did not pan out. So they must have meant something else.

I trace this development in my book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.  This is what I say there:

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At Last. Jesus and the Son of Man.
Did Jesus Think He Would Be the Judge of the Earth?

76

Comments

  1. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  August 17, 2020

    Thanks Bart.

    ‘For these gnostic sayings, the kingdom of God is not a future reality that will come to earth in a cataclysmic break in history at the end of the age. It is a salvation from within, available now to all who know who they really are and whence they have come.’

    As I wrote in my post ‘Non-Christian Gnosticism and John’s Gospel:

    ‘What we would have … in the otherwise problematic gospel of John is a syncretism of Gnostic thought with stories and sayings of Jesus, some of which are taken from the synoptics, in order to successfully smuggle the doctrines of Gnosticism into ‘orthodox’ (from the Gnostic point of view ‘ignorant’) Christianity.’

    It seems that the apocalyptic message of Jesus was transformed by the help of the Gnostics into a different soteriology of the here and now.

  2. Avatar
    mrccs  August 17, 2020

    Professor, when you were a believer how did you balance what I believe are the two extremes of Christian faith. One is being in the presence of God, being saved, blessed, gifts of the spirit, etc… In contrast with the fear of hell, or being left behind at the rapture which could happen as I type this.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      I saw them as a complete unity.

      • Avatar
        KingJohn  August 22, 2020

        Dr. Ehrman: Gnostics did not call themselves Gnostics, did they? Were they not Christians?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 23, 2020

          They probably didn’t use either term for themselves.

  3. Avatar
    RiskManager  August 17, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Thank you for clearly laying out the changes in gospels over time.

    Just a quick question: I understand that the Jews living at the time of Jesus were expecting the son of man to come and judge. And in your debates and books you say that this idea comes from Daniel some 2 centuries before Jesus. My question is why Daniel talks about “son of man” figure as the judge instead of Yahweh (god) himself coming as the judge? I mean up until that point I assume Jews had not invented son of man/god figure, where did Daniel get this idea from?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      Mainly because by this point most Jews thought htat God interacted with those on earth, directly, with angelic intermediaries; he was transcendent, above it all, in heaven.

  4. Avatar
    Clair  August 17, 2020

    Could the change in thinking be credited to the Roman victory in 70CE?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      My sense is that teh changes were happening largely *outside* of Israel, and that the fate of Jerusalem was not the single major feature. Though of course when the desturction of teh temple happened but the end still did not come, that must have given a *lot* of people pause.

  5. fefferdan
    fefferdan  August 17, 2020

    Bart: How do you see the ending of Mark in terms of the issue of apocalypticism? At first glance the inclusion of Mark 16:10ff seems to add to the apocalypticism of the book, with Jesus predicting that his disciples would handle venomous snakes as a sign of future salvation etc. The impression is further empowered by the vision of Jesus taken up into heaven and sitting at the right hand of God. But in light of what you’ve shared here, I’m rethinking. This isn’t apocalypticism in the sense that you use the term. Rather, this ending is more along the lines of what you say about Luke, that it teaches the presence of God already present in the church, its sacraments and miraculous signs. Jesus may have been taken up into heaven, but whether anyone [Jesus or the Son of Man?] is coming back at the End of Days… well that’s not clear.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      Interesting question. I don’t thin I’ve thought about it htat way!

  6. Avatar
    forthfading  August 17, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In Mark 9:1, for example, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, there are some who are standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.”

    What is the common way Christians today interpret this passage? I am assuming they don’t simply say “well, I guess he got that part wrong.”

    Thanks, jay

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      Often they take it as referring either to the coming of the church or to the coming of the Holy Spirit at pentecost.

      • Avatar
        Confused777  September 9, 2020

        Hi I was wondering what is the typical Response to Jesus telling the High Priest. “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven” ? Is it the same as your above answer for mark 9:1 ,
        Coming of the church or of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 10, 2020

          I think most readers who are not critical scholars imagine that Jesus is not really telling the high priest that *he* will see these things, just that they will happen.

  7. Avatar
    stokerslodge  August 18, 2020

    Bart, I apologise for asking you an off topic question: I recently watched a YouTube video of Bishop John Shelby Spong. During the course of his lecture he said that there was a time difference of 200 hundred years between the writing of Genesis chapter 1 and Genesis chapter 2. I want to ask you if this is the consensus view among biblical scholars and how is that time difference determined? (https://youtu.be/jKNup9gEBdg)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      Genesis 2 is almost certainly the earlier account. In the traditional views of modern critical scholarship it was about 500 years earlier than the account of Genesis 1.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  August 19, 2020

        I don’t know if I would specify a 500-year interval, but I would say that the Gen. 2 version certainly contains elements of older Mesopotamian stories such as Enuma Elish, as for example when God creates man to till the garden and tend it. Also, I read Gen.2 as showing God as a craftsman fiddling with his creation and adjusting it, like he wasn’t quite satisfied with it at first. Gen. 1 shows a more transcendent version of God, more remote and more sure of himself. On that basis alone I’d assign it a later date.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 21, 2020

          In the traditional documentary hypothesis (JEDP), Gen 2 is normally taken to come from the J source, from around 1000 BCE, adn Gen 1 from P, from the exilic period (ca 550 BCE)

          • Avatar
            dankoh  August 21, 2020

            Well, I’d put P as pre-exilic, at least in its beginnings, though it may have been finished after the exile. But I have to ask why you seem to say JEDP is no longer accepted? I understand it’s changed a lot in many ways, but I thought the basic theory of multiple texts, particularly P and E, is still on solid ground.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 23, 2020

            The real experts find JEDP to be too simple, and think it’s actually a lot more complicated than all that. Those are weeds I prefer not to get into (personally)….

  8. Avatar
    Shah  August 18, 2020

    Dear prof. Ehrman,
    With all respect, this interpretation of Jesus’ apocalyptic message is not correct. The title of this post is very ironic, because, in fact it is you who change the message of Jesus with your interpretation of the Gospels.
    The concept of time in the Bible depends on the beginning of the revelation to Adam, and the end of the revelation to the last coming of the Messiah. However, there are two messiahs in the narrative, (Messiah of the house of Judah who receive the word of God, and the Messiah of the house of Joseph who will receive its interpretation). That’s why there are in fact two ends in the Bible.
    When the Gospels announce that the end of time is near, it is in that context that Messiah/Jesus has come many times since the time of Adam, and will come back only once more time for the last time. This prophecy is perfectly fulfilled, since Jesus came back as Muhammad and he removed the corruption that has been added to the Scripture after Jesus, by receiving the Qur’an, the last revelation.
    The Gospel of John predicts this rime after time: For example in John 16:7.

  9. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  August 18, 2020

    What about all those transcendental worldviews which was around in the 1. Century? I imagine that those would probably adresss those questions differently?
    I am sure that at least most litteral/educated Jews would be well aware of and probably influenced by the more metaphysic worlds which e.g. the Greeks had (Platon, Pythagorians and others) had, refering to an esoteric world/worldview where this world is the imperfect of this real world, and that the soul could be purified.
    These ideas also occures in Gnosticism which I still think has its origin before Jesus (in particular the “Triniterian theology” which is described in the first part of the Apocryphon of John (Barbelloist). I still think they tried, and managed to christianize it in late 1. century /first half of 2.century. The gnostic ideas seesm also to be reflected in scriptures like the “Odes” which some also relate them to the Johanniene community in late 1. century.
    My “speculation” is that even the Revelation is about the story of the soul ascend, which very well could be influenced by these esoteric ideas (mentioned above) which was around, possible well known/familiar by the schribes , and emerging at that time.

    In my perception of the multitude of ideas, and also mystical/esoteric or hellinistic ideas of this trancendtal worldview/worlds, I struggle with a concept where Jesus or at least the scribes around him wasn’t aware of this ideas related to Jesus “apocalyptic ” views.

    • kt@rg.no
      kt@rg.no  August 19, 2020

      ,,,and you point out the de-apocalypticizing of Jesus in the Gospel of John. In my mind it seems that the above references to the emerging christianized gnostic movements in the end of the 1 century? or the first of the 2. Century was involved in a more spiritual perseption of the theology, and who Christ was?

      From different essays of scholars (inlcuding late PHD John Turner), that the movement(s) at least partly arouse around Antioch (perhaps also the Johannine community), which for my understanding, could have affected the “acolyptical” idea and what it meant.

      For me, the The Revelation (for me:the story of the ascend of the soul) uses some similar symbology as found in Gnosticism (i. e. 5 seals ((“5 trees”?)), “seals”,bridal Chamber ). Also the Gnostics used baptist rituals, called 5 seals (defined as physical organs and spiritual counterparts) a ritual involving getting into an ecstatic condition and induce visions and revelations.

      In my understanding, in the Apocryphton scriptures, the salvation involves the soul, not the body. Since several scholars point ot that these ideas would have been known, could this be the reason why the “apocalypticizing” got a different meaning?

      • Bart
        Bart  August 21, 2020

        Most Gnostic scholars today think the movement started after the NT was written.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      Gnosticism is usually dated as arising about a century after Jesus.

  10. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  August 18, 2020

    Maybe the best way to think of Jesus is as a devout, Torah believing, orthodox Jew of this time, under the influence of John the Baptist. A human being. Roman occupation was the central issue. After his death, his followers, at least some of them, continued to believe in the immanent arrival of the kingdom. They would have revered Jesus as a wonder working prophet/teacher. Rabbi Tovin on youtube has an interesting take on this. He says, if you really want to follow Jesus, become an orthodox Jew. He also disputes Paul’s claim to have been a pharisee, and finds it unlikely that there would have been any organized persecution of Christians when Paul claimed to have done that. There weren’t any distinct Christians in those days, and the Christ revering Jews would have been too small in number and too marginal. The big problem was Rome, dwarfing all else. Who would waste time with an oddball variant of apocalyptic Judaism?

    • Avatar
      RICHWEN90  August 18, 2020

      Tovia Singer. I got my rabbis mixed up!

  11. Avatar
    jhague  August 18, 2020

    “to destroy the opponents of God (both human and non-human)”

    Were the non-humans the devil and his angels?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      And all the powers of evil in the world. (Principalities, powers, etc.)

  12. Avatar
    KRJohnson  August 18, 2020

    It seems like the Christians of present and antiquity move the goalposts. The return of the kingdom that Jesus predicted has not come to pass, so Christians re-interpret it because they can’t be wrong. Their lives are engulfed in the belief that Jesus is coming back to earth. That is the cornerstone of their faith, their identity, and the point they badger to scare the literal hell out of people.
    I appreciate your blog, Bart. Thank you for your willingness to share your time and knowledge.

  13. Avatar
    Bwana  August 18, 2020

    But the high priest was already long dead and buried when Mark wrote his gospel. So Mark also knew that Jesus’ prediction had not come true. Luke’s textual modification thus seems less significant.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      Because Mark didn’t make the change as well? I’m not sure I see the logic of that. Mark was repeating a tradition he heard, Luke realized it was a problem. (Also: I have no way of knowing if Mark knew the date of the death of Caiaphas)

  14. Avatar
    lysias94  August 18, 2020

    I wonder what is the scholarly consensus, if indeed there is a consensus, on the reasons for the rise of apocalypticism among Jews around the time that Jesus lived. Was it simply that Roman rule was so harsh, so unjust, so unbearable that people engaged in wishful thinking that a messiah would soon come and save humanity? If so, why don’t we see apocalyptic thinking in other parts of the Roman empire…or do we?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      It’s usually thought to be a view that arose in times of intense suffering among a people who believed there was only one God, who was sovereign over all, whom they were doing the best to obey, while thinking that he would assist them if they did so. He wasn’t assisting them, and so there must be some other reason. Solution: he had relinquished control for a time.

  15. tompicard
    tompicard  August 18, 2020

    In Mark 9:1, for example, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, there are some who are standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.”

    Doesn’t that mean those people will die after the Kingdom of God has arrived, i.e. the natural order of births and deaths continue ?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      Good question. It means that these individuals will still be alive when the kingdom comes. “Until” here means “before” — and does not imply that they will then die *afterward*.

      • Avatar
        jdmartin21  August 24, 2020

        So, is that also the meaning of “until” in Matthew 1:25: “…but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son…” or does it imply that they did have sex “after” Jesus was born?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 26, 2020

          It probably implies they had sex afterward.

          • Avatar
            AngeloB  September 4, 2020

            I read that chapter in Greek in a Greek Orthodox NT translation. The commentary for Matthew 1:25 insists that the verse doesn’t imply that they had sex afterwards. The commentary’s stance doesn’t make any sense at all!

  16. LukaPNW
    LukaPNW  August 18, 2020

    Yet, even now, we still have people claiming the end is still just around the corner. Anyway, great post, the utility in toning down the imminency of the apocalypse amongst Christians is obvious and well documented here.

    It would also seem that the Jews have largely dropped their belief in apocalypticism as well.

  17. Avatar
    flshrP  August 18, 2020

    Isn’t this process of changing (or evolving) the words in the Gospels a tipoff that cognitive dissonance resolution is occurring here? We’ve seen similar instances of this phenomenon in our own lifetimes when end of world prophecies run into the stubborn fact that the world continues in existence after the supposed day of destruction.

    The apocalyptic prophesy and the timetable that Jesus had preached since day one of his ministry were not fulfilled after his crucifixion. Consequently, these early first century Christians were getting a lot of pushback from people of the Jewish and Gentile persuasions about Jesus, the Failed Apocalyptic Prophet. Hence, cognitive dissonance resolution saves the day by junking Jesus’ prophecy and replacing it with one that is immune to falsification–the whole thing will take place in a supernatural realm that is beyond the reach of our senses.

    Very convenient. But that transforms Christianity from being the religion OF Jesus to being a religion ABOUT Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      yes indeed — some very serious cognitive dissonance. Professor John Gager of Princeton University wrote an entire book on this very topic, From Kingdom to Community.

  18. Avatar
    nicolausaldanha  August 18, 2020

    Does Luke 17:21 say that the Kingdom of God is “within you” or “among you”? Does the original allow for both interpretations?
    And how do you compare Luke 17:21 with Thomas in sayings 3 and 113?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      Definitly *among* you. He is speaking to his *enemies*, the Pharisees. No way he means “inside of you.” He definitely did not think that of the Pharisees! maybe I’ll post on that one — it’s an important issue. Thomas goes even farther than Luke on the matter: he doesn’t *delay* the apocalyptic end, as Luke does; he denies it’s coming at all and preaches against an apocalyptic view.

  19. Avatar
    brenmcg  August 18, 2020

    Isn’t Matthew’s version older than Mark’s and Luke’s?

    Matthew 16:28 “Truly I tell you some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      No, don’t think so. Matthew used Mark as his source and redacted it.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  August 19, 2020

        I think in this instance though it appears to be pointing the other way, Mark and Luke redacting Matthew. Especially as the section as a whole is concerned with the son of man, who must suffer and will come in the father’s glory.

        Also Mark’s extra “and for the gospel” when compared to Matthew/Luke in Mark 8:35 “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me *and for the gospel* will save it” should always be considered a secondary addition. Just as Luke’s extra “daily” and “destroys himself” in 9:23 and 9:25 against Mark/Matthew are secondary additions.

        Also Mark’s extra “adulterous and sinful generation” in 8:38 is out of place in context. It works better in Matthew and Luke’s placement elsewhere where Jesus denies a sign to the adulterous/evil generation.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 21, 2020

          I’m noticed you think that about all of teh examples you pick! 🙂

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  August 24, 2020

            Yes, but even looking at an example that’s usually thought to favor Markan priority, “He could not do any miracles there … “, the argument gets negated by Mark’s next phrase “except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.”

            Healing sick people is exactly what got Jesus his following in the first place. How is this any different? He’s being just as Messianic here as anywhere else.

            It’s a muddled reaction to the pure form of the narrative found in Matthew “he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.”

          • Bart
            Bart  August 26, 2020

            Markan or Matthean priority cannot be based on a single instance of what one of us happens to look like the earlier form of the text.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  August 27, 2020

            Yeah I know, but I think there’s too many examples of Matthew’s text looking like the earlier version for Mark to be first.

  20. Avatar
    Poohbear  August 18, 2020

    Quote Ehrmah, “the end is coming right away according to John the Baptist (Luke 3:9);
    Quote John, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

    To support preconceived beliefs about the divinity of Christ you read things into text clearly not there.

    If Jesus lived three score and ten years then he would might have seen AD 65. But he said he came to die for his people – which means he won’t die in his old age.
    Jesus spoke of the New Covenant, the fall of Jerusalem and the temple; the exile of the Jews; the Gospel being received of the Gentiles; the fall of the Gentiles; the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and wars and sorrows yet to come.
    How could Jesus have expected to see all that had he lived to AD 65?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      Are you saying that there’s no alternative to thinking it must have been a miracle? OK, well, we ain’t gonna agree on that. ANd if you can’t think of an alternative to that explanation… really?

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